Bosnia and Biopolitics

Bosnia. The photos show fleeing refugees with their ragged bundles and mournful eyes. News programs feature talking heads debating whether the U.S. should intervene. But what really caught my eye was an article in the Boston Globe trying to explain why tragedies like this happen. The cause of the bloodbath in Bosnia, says the Globe, lies in our genes. Ethnic conflict is merely part of our evolutionary inheritance, the article explains. Xenophobia-fear of foreigners-has its roots in conflict between animal groups in the jungles and savannas. This idea comes from a school of thought known as biopolitics: the attempt to explain politics by biology. Biopolitics assumes that the roots of human behavior can be traced back to evolutionary ancestors. Since aggression and conflict exist among primates, the theory says, they must serve a useful evolutionary function. Listen to anthropologist Charles Southwick, who studied rhesus monkeys in India. Aggression, he says, helps maintain social groupings. "Xenophobia has apparently arisen in the course of natural selection and social evolution," Southwick writes. It's an evolutionary "adaptation," just like the tiger's claws or the eagle's feathers. But isn't this carrying evolution too far? Biopolitics nearly makes ethnic conflict sound like a good thing. After all, if inter-group aggression has been preserved by natural selection, then presumably it must confer some sort of evolutionary advantage. What you and I regard as a bloody tragedy, biopolitics seems to sanction as a positive outcome of social evolution. This is exactly the same flaw that plagues any theory that reduces human beings to biology: It eliminates the moral dimension. Men and women become pawns of their genes; no behavior is right or wrong, it is merely a natural phenomenon. Is it wrong when the lion ambushes the gazelle? Or when the hawk swoops down on the rabbit? No, these things are just part of nature. And in biopolitics, human actions are considered just part of nature as well. Warfare and "ethnic cleansing" are not immoral, any more than the food chain is. What's worse, these things cannot be changed. You see, if violent patterns of behavior are coded into our genes through millions of years of evolution, you can bet no one is going to change those patterns in a single lifetime. But if violence is sin-a result of wrong moral choices-what a wonderful freedom we have. If something is a sin, we can repent. If we've made a wrong moral choice, we can set it right. Notice the irony here: The modern biologist often rejects the Christian teaching on sin as harsh and pessimistic. But he replaces it with a biological reductionism that is much more pessimistic-because it roots evil in our genetic make-up. In biopolitics, our problem isn't that we're sinners; our problem is that we're primates. So the choice is ours: When we see the wrenching photos of Serbs and Croats locked in bloody warfare, we can either attribute it to an irresistible biological imperative, as biopolitics does. Or we can call it sin, and apply the message of redemption.


Chuck Colson


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